The Lamprey Where are you from?
David Allen Coester I grew up in Virginia, outside of Washington DC. I went off to school in New York City, to the Manhattan School of Music, and I lived in New York for 18 years. Then, through some friends here I ended up moving here. I realized I could buy a house for what my storage room rental was there.
Lamprey Many people cite that as a reason to come to Chautauqua County. (laughs) When did you ﬁrst get interested in guitar?
David I started playing the guitar when I was 15. I got together with some friends and we sort of had a rock band. I don’t think we could actually play a song, but we did a lot of improvisation, so to speak. It was somewhere between Judas Priest, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Grateful Dead. Probably a little heavier, depending on who was taking the lead at the time.
Lamprey When did you get into classical guitar?
David I graduated from high school and went to community college in Virginia. That’s when I started taking music and guitar lessons. So I really started playing classical guitar when I was 18. And then I practiced a lot—obsessively, compulsively—for a few years. I got into the Manhattan School of Music, which was kind of a coup. Although it’s not like being a violinist or a pianist. They have to start when they’re four years old, otherwise they won’t have a chance.
Lamprey Still, classical guitar is among the most complex ways to play that instrument.
David Part of it is a personality thing. I really like working with my hands, and I like complicated things. Also, I’ve been thinking about this lately: there’s a celebration in this country of large muscle groups. (laughs) We celebrate them much more than small muscle groups.
Lamprey It’s true.
David I was watching the X-Games when the pro skateboarders were on. They do amazing things. But I started thinking, my hands do equally amazing things. They’re just small muscle groups. I look at my ﬁngers [while I’m playing] and they’re like contortionists and acrobats, and sometimes daredevils. From the audience you don’t see what the ﬁngers are doing. And like I said, I need a complicated nut to crack. Once you play the music of J.S. Bach, it’s just so rich and there are so many levels to it. The history of German music is a little intellectual. From Heinrich Schütz through Bach and Mozart, Hayden, and Mahler, it’s always kind of serious, intellectual music. But it’s incredibly expressive music at the same time.
Lamprey The cliche about Bach is that his music is very “mathematical”. But he showed how that could absolutely create beauty.
David One of the problems I have selling classical music in a non-academic setting is that some people expect all music to have a good groove. In some ways that’s so limiting. I mean, there’s a lot more possibilities, otherwise we’d be stuck with military marches and nothing else. You don’t always want to bang your head.
Lamprey You’re speaking of obviously rhythmic music.
David The rhythm tends to sell. With a lot of guitar playing, they’re sort of playing it like a drum. It’s more rhythmic than melodic. There’ll be a little bit of harmonic stuff, but it’s overpowered by the rhythm. There really are only four elements in music, and J.S. Bach and Sid Vicious are using the same ones.
Lamprey What are they?
David Duration—how long does it last? Pitch—how high, how low. There’s volume—how loud, how soft. And timbre, which is color, the reason a violin sounds different from a clarinet. Bach and the Sex Pistols are using those same four elements. Bach is using a lot more of one, the Sex Pistols are using a lot more of another. But if you compare them to each other, they both fail in each other’s world.
Lamprey You’re saying there’s still a lot of variety once you remove rhythm.
David Right. Drums and bass hold things together in a way that when you don’t have them, the rules become different. How you listen is entirely different. Melodically and harmonically, once you get the drums out of the picture, everything is less covered up.
Lamprey What make is your guitar?
David Allen Coester
David My guitar was made by Larry Breslin. I was playing in Cheyenne, Wyoming when I met him. He had a very large house, and was sponsoring a house concert as a fundraiser for the Cheyenne Symphony. I was accompanying a ﬂutist. They said, you know, Larry makes guitars in the basement. I thought, my god, I’m going to have to look at this guy’s guitars, and they’re probably terrible, with steel strings. (laughs) It turns out he makes these beautiful high-end, nylon-string classical guitars, with the 12th fret at the body.
Lamprey How much from scratch are they?
David I ended up going out there and picking out the wood with him. He’d gone to a lumber camp and bought a log of Engelmann Spruce. He had them cut it down to two- or four-foot sections, then he split it himself and made the tops for the guitars.
Lamprey An actual luthier.
Lamprey Is it the same body style as any classical guitarist, like what Segovia would use?
David Segovia played a Ramirez, but I think the basic modern model is the Torres. Before that, the 19th-century guitars had a much smaller body. The same size neck, but the body is smaller. The tone is more balanced and they tend to play 19th-century music very well. If you play 19th-century music on a modern guitar you have to kind of compensate.
Lamprey They have more of a rumble.
David Yeah, the new guitars are boom-y. And some of them are being made out of carbon ﬁbers now. It’s crazy. $30,000 for a guitar with a paper-thin top that’s just not going to last.
Lamprey How do you mean?
David Guitars, the way they’re constructed with a ﬂat top, don’t last like violins. Stradivarius made guitars, but nobody’s playing them. A one-hundred-year-old guitar isn’t ... well, actually it’s kind of hard to tell because the models were different a hundred years ago.
Lamprey Right, we don’t really know. When Early Music had its big revival in the 70s, suddenly the authenticity of everything was questioned, especially the instruments. But nobody actually knew what the music was supposed to sound like if it was ﬁrst played 600 years ago.
David Exactly. It’s a little bit like opera singers. People will debate the merits of singers that there are no known recordings of. (laughs)
Lamprey How would you characterize your repertoire? What do you play and why?
David I’ve become sort of a utilitarian guitar player at this point. I don’t have a college teaching job, and college teachers tend to play all this great esoteric music that’s written by their colleagues. They play it to the same handful of people. When I was in school I played a lot of contemporary British music, like Michael Tippett, William Walton, and other stuff. But now I play more towards an audience that is not on a college campus, so I try to play music that is more accessible.
Lamprey More melodic. Ha, I don’t mean that to sound boring.
David Playing is so much fun, I don’t think anything is really, truly boring. For one thing, I really love the physical part of playing. But it is one thing to play something, and another thing to work on it for six months or a year to play it.
Lamprey How do you get around that tedium?
David If I can work on it a little bit, and get it going, read it, then I’m ﬁne with playing it. If I have to work on it seriously for nine months, it’s a whole different thing. I can play the Gig Book all day long. Those are Beatles arrangements. They’re not easy, all of them, but they’re interesting, and basically I can hold it together. But there’s some stuff, if I have to work on it really hard, and it’s not interesting enough music, and it’s too physically demanding, then I won’t. Bach is always good because I can invest in a piece for six to eight months, still not quite be able to play it, but still want to work on it more.
Lamprey I’ve seen you perform, and you have a talent for pulling the listener in. They become so quiet.
David Well, it’s really great when you’re playing without ampliﬁcation. If someone crosses their legs it interrupts the concert, so guitar audiences are incredibly quiet. It’s really a very soft instrument.
Lamprey Your repertoire is also pretty eclectic. It’s as if you’re happy to tackle most things.
David Somebody said that to me recently that I’m the kind of guitar player who’s like, “Oh yay, I get to play the guitar now!” (laughs) I thought that was deadly accurate. There is the physical joy of making sound. I mean, playing a solo instrument is incredibly personal, too. It’s such a battle of you against this thing that can barely be played. It’s almost an impossible instrument to play.
Lamprey An acoustic guitar is unlike other instruments in that it’s not as simple to make a beautiful, singing note the way you can on, say, a piano.
David Pianos have peddles. It’s a big machine, a piano. I’ve lost [guitar] students to piano. Because in four or ﬁve months I can get them to play what they can learn to play in a week on a piano. The fact is, you can step up to a piano, push down a key, and get a sound.
Lamprey And with a guitar?
David I can sum up what other players have said, that a guitar is basically creating an illusion at all times. The notes are dying. You play a note and it dies. You don’t have the dynamic range to play with. So to have, like you say, a singing melody is purely an illusion. You create that illusion through the balance of volume. You keep the melody loud and the accompaniment super-soft, and it gives the illusion that the melody is really singing out.
Lamprey Do you listen to recordings of other classical guitarists?
David Generally I don’t listen to guitarists at all. I think that things that are similar are actually better teachers. When I would listen to music in the library at the Manhattan School it would be string quartets and solo pianists mostly. Old pianists, I don’t think you can match them. Like Josef Hofmann, or even Rachmaninoff. There’s technique and style there that you can copy. But with guitarists, I’ve never been able to follow a literal example. When you go see a high-end piano player—like Richard Goode came to Fredonia State. It was like, this is what I’m looking for to hear. This is how I want to hear playing done.
Lamprey You teach guitar lessons yourself, with a really good deal for new students.
David The beginner package is a guitar as well as 12 lessons, a case, and a book for $295. It’s a really nice bargain, but it’s kind of self-defense too. (laughs) I used to have kids come in with these Chinese guitars that were terrible. The frets were not quite in the right place. They were almost unplayable even by me, so the student would have a lot of trouble. But somebody came in with a Strunal guitar. They’ve been made in Czechoslovakia for over 100 years, with old school craftsmanship, and they’re fairly inexpensive. I started selling them online, through my Meantone Studios website, to Suzuki teachers and other children’s guitar programs. So this deal is a way to get them into the hands of my students as well.
Lamprey On a different note, tell me about the open mic night that you do at Webb’s in Mayville.
David It’s from 5 to 8 pm on the ﬁrst Saturday of the month. Ben Webb was just looking for things to happen there, and he asked if I would be willing to do this. I have this fabulous Bose p.a. system that makes everybody sound really good, and it’s actually turned out to be a great open mic night as well. Everybody that’s been coming through is very good. As far as an age range, I have 14-year-old kids playing, I have retired people that play from time to time, and then people in between. It’s become kind of what my fantasy business is, which is a listening room. A place where you can go and seriously listen, without a lot of people talking. How it should be.