Bill Pibun - Issue 8 of Fingerstyle Guitar Journal
Brian Farrell is a talented guitarist and composer from Ireland. Singer songwriter James Taylor particularly influenced him. Brian's journey with the guitar began at the age of ten and was largely self-taught until he began studies with Barry Lawlor, one of Irelands most respected teachers. In the years to come he would study in masterclasses with David Russell, Carlos Bonell, Costas Cotsiolis, Paul Gregory and Vladimír Mikulka to name a few. Brian holds a Licentiate in teaching with the Trinity College of Music London, a Performance and Associate Licentiate in performance and a BA (Hons) and Music Diploma from the Open University. After teaching at Castleknock College in Ireland for six years Brian decided to setup his own teaching studio. Twenty-eight years later it's still going strong.
Your home is in Ireland. Where in Ireland do you live and where did you grow up?
I live in a place called Castleknock in Dublin 15 and I grew up not so far away from here in Finglas where I lived up to the age of twenty-four.
How did the guitar come into your life and who were your first instructors?
Strangely enough there are no musicians on either side of my family and my first encounter with guitar was hearing my elder brother playing the music of James Taylor. I was so struck by his playing that I wanted to be able to play like him. I got the chance to have some basic guitar lessons in primary school at the age of nine and I was hooked from then on. At first I actually set out as a motorcycle mechanic and even raced them for a bit. Leaving school by the age of fourteen was common in those days, so mechanics waste initial path I was to follow and not music. All the time I was studying mechanics I was playing acoustic guitar as a serious hobby. As I wasn't a great singer, I felt I needed to try to play the guitar from a soloist point of view. Around 1982 I was introduced to the late Barry Lawlor who was one of the finest classical guitar teachers in Ireland. From then on, my life would completely change. Barry took me under his wing and obviously saw potential and, on top of that, he became one of my closest friends. We both later had the best of both worlds. After studying with him for a few years, we became duet partners giving concerts around Dublin. The ideal student teacher relationship! It was rather ironic that Barry lost his life in a motorbike accident while he was heading into Dublin City to purchase tickets for a Segovia concert in 1986.
You are a performing guitarist, composer and teacher. What role do you enjoy more and which do you feel more satisfied by?
At this stage in my life I guess I find balance and enjoyment in all three. I'm thirty-five years into teaching and plan on doing a lot more for sometime to come. If I had a choice I suppose, I'd probably retire and just play a lot more, although focal dystonia in my righthand 'A' finger has curtailed an awful lot of my playing ability now.
I have also always suffered dreadfully with stage fright despite having a lot of experience playing and even winning competitions. In fact this was such an issue that I gave up playing for over fifteen years and just taught the instrument. Around 2009 something inspired me (possibly the death of my brother) to pick up the guitar again and I was absolutely amazed how my technique had developed purely from all my teachings i.e. I unwittingly programmed myself despite not actually playing. Coupled with the major advancement of technology, camcorders, YouTube etc. I was able to record all my playing in the privacy of my home and not have to deal with the pressures of live performances!
Did you study composition or is it something you developed on your own?
No, I never formally studied composition and to be honest, I'm often uncomfortable with that title being applied to my name. I know a lot of composers who have studied composition to the highest level and feel I never come close to the standard of music they produce. I see my compositions like 'borrowed ideas' i.e. if I hear a melody that really 'gets' me, or a tune going around in my head, and then I find I'll incorporate this into something at a later stage.
I could go for a long time and never feel the need to compose and then an idea just comes my way and I can do a couple pieces of in a short space of time.
During your studies you have had the opportunity to study in master-classes with guitarists such as David Russell, Carlos Bonell, Costas Cotsiolis, and Paul Gregory. Please share your memories of these experiences.
Well, that goes back a long time and it would have been the mid 80's when I had lessons from David Russell and Carlos Bonell. I do remember David working patiently with me on at least two occasions as I was such a beginner and was struggling my way through "Recuerdos de la Alhambra". I used to have a photo from a magazine of him in my room positioned where I could constantly remind myself of how my right-hand position should be and I was definitely very influenced by his tone and attack on the strings. I have always been complimented on my tone and can definitely attribute this to David.
I remember having a master-class with Vladimír Mikulka and I played through "El Polifemo de Oro" by Reginald Smith Brindle and after playing Mikulka said "Do you have anything else prepared, as there is nothing I can add to that." I felt very humbled by that comment and was quite taken aback.
Paul Gregory was somebody I studied with on several occasions when I was much more accomplished as a player. He was very influential on me and had a big impact on advancing my technique. I recently recorded an all Bach CD titled Chaconne and some of the pieces he helped me with. It took me over twenty-five years to get to the point I felt ready to record Bach and now I'm very happy I did.
You hold a Licentiate in teaching from Trinity College of Music London and a Performance and Associate Licentiate from The London College of Music. You also studied with the Open University. Tell me about your studies with these schools.
My guitar teacher Barry Lawlor had a teaching Licentiate with Trinity College of Music London and I knew that it was something I aspired to have. I think at the time there were technically around four people in Ireland with an actual guitar teaching qualification. I struggled to find a decent teacher up to the time of Barry, it made me very determined to qualify so I too could pass on his gift of teaching to others. I did find the Trinity and London College of Music diplomas quite challenging but certainly worth doing, however something niggled at me to work for something even higher. The Open University (OU) beckoned and was a fantastic choice. I have so many wonderful memories studying for my Arts Degree. There is no doubt that the workload with the OU is huge, but being a musician finding the motivation to study alone was not at all difficult for me. It does require commitment but the courses are set up so well they just simply work for the 'distance' learner like myself. In fact in 2003 I even went on to study computers and web design with the OU but mainly as a serious hobby.
After teaching at Castleknock College in Ireland for several years you left to open your own guitar studio. I'd like to hear what led to that decision and about your studio today.
It was a very easy decision. I took over for a previous teacher who was there for seventeen years and still on a part-time wage. I taught there for seven years and saw no chance of getting a full-time post as it was basically a college and not a music school. I decided to advertise guitar lessons in the area and within a week I had over thirty students on a waiting list! In the autumn of 1989 I setup my own studio and never looked back. I have taught everything from pop and theory to classical guitar. I have had literally 1000s of students successfully sit Trinity of Music London and Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music & Theory examinations. For me, age is no barrier and once a student is enthusiastic I'll teach them regardless of whether they're seven or seventy years old. A good few of my students have gone on to have successful careers in music, which is nice but reminds me I'm getting older!
I assume you are a fan of Andrew York and his compositions since I heard you play his music. Any thoughts you might want to share on his music or influence he may have on you as a composer?
Yes, I really do appreciate Andrew York's compositions and there is something about his music that is captivating to my ear. Although I have never met him, we do correspond from time to time as he has been very supportive of my videos on YouTube. I am planning on doing a CD dedicated to his music and hope to have it out by the end of 2017.
I particularly like the way Andrew uses different tunings and at the moment I've been reading through The Equations of Beauty and really like the tuning and the use of the capo at the V position. In some ways, his music might seem easy to the ear but when you start to work on it, you can really see the mathematician in him coming through, especially in the rhythms. His music sometimes reminds me of minimalist composers. For example John Cage where there seems to be a lot of repetition but on close inspection and listening, there is very clever and subtle changes as the music develops.
You have a new recording titled Dew Drop. Tell me about the music on this collection and how it came about.
Ah yes Dew Drop, well this was an album that happened by chance. I was working on a suite called the Holocaust Suite and I realized that I had enough compositions to make up a complete CD of my own. I never planned it this way but just thought, why not! It consists of a lot of melodies that came to me through my journey back into guitar playing.
I can be extremely influenced by certain books, moving stories, my children of course, anything spiritual and nature. I have a huge respect for the term 'living in the moment' and this really helped me compose all my pieces. I know this metaphor has been passed around ad nauseam these days but I do find this very important to me. People are so consumed by their thoughts and spend so much time compulsively thinking and listening to the voice in their heads they are completely missing 'life' itself. The mental noise of 'thoughts' is never-ending and the sooner people realize this the better. As humans we continue chasing the illusion of 'as soon as I achieve this or that, I'll be happy' or 'as soon as I buy this I'll be satisfied and content.' This is a never- ending pit and the human mind is conditioned to function this way unless of course we intervene with 'presence'.
The music world alone can be terribly ego driven too and I find for me it's comforting that I don't have to deal with that aspect that comes your way after a live performance. I play, record and upload and basically forget about it. If somebody comments on a piece I play, I will always reply especially since they have taken the time to comment. I don't need the dopamine hit that people actually get by compulsively looking at the 'hits' or 'likes' tally on their social media page. I even find that I can record pieces and forget about them almost to the point that I don't care much for them once they are done. Sometimes I find works on my PC that I recorded and didn't bother to upload to my website and have to make a special effort to make it public.
All the pieces on Dew Drop are mainly dedicated to people or places that influenced me in some way. I was pleased with the end result as I felt there was quite a diverse range of themes and melodies throughout. I felt too that I didn't get caught with stylistic similarities that sometimes can make certain composers' music almost sound like one continuous piece. While I have a good few of these scores for sale, to date, I've never heard any of them performed other than by myself. I do think some are quite technically challenging and that might put people off as the likes of Rouillac named after a tiny village in France or McBeth dedicated to Madeleine McCann uses different tunings, which makes them a bit more demanding to those who are used to standard tuning.
I try to do all the photography and artwork on all my CDs as much as possible as it really helps to keep costs down. I have moved into the world of digital downloads despite holding off as long as I could so most of my playing is now available on digital media.
The title "Dew Drop" has a special meaning but as they say if I tell you then I'll have to… Your music often has key center shifts that surprise yet not to shocking. Is this a conscious effort or just the way you hear it?
That's nice to hear. In fact is totally deliberate. It's all to easy when you are not accomplished in compositional studies to fall into the I - IV - V trap and quickly run out of ideas! I like to use my own 'interrupted' type of cadences I guess. If I feel a passage is progressing in a predictable manner i.e. to some sort of natural conclusion, I will think of a way around it and deny it that predictability.
Although not really evident in my music accept for maybe the Holocaust Suite, Atonal music is something I listen to in large amounts. I was heavily involved in running a contemporary music series here in Ireland for over twenty years and we had some of the greats play at this series including: George Crumb, David Starobin, Barry Guy, Mats Gustafsson and many more so maybe that's where I get my 'key center' shift influences from! The sound quality on your videos is very good.
How are you recording the audio and the video?
I don't really use anything fancy. I just have a good Rode NT45 stereo mic and I run it through Adobe Premier Pro and that's it really. I have a few cheap HD camcorders as I don't need them for sound and just set them up running together.
I do fear that the way videos are progressing these days that the quality and look is becoming more important than the music itself. Some people are obviously spending a lot on the production, which to me means the music is getting lost to the visuals. Vinyl, cassettes and CDs were for listening to and not looking at - it would be nice to be able to keep it that way!
Please tell me about your composition Holocaust Suite.
I read the book A Rage to Live - Victor Breitburg with Joseph G. Krygier, which was all about Victor Breitburg's survival of the holocaust. I had read a good few books on the holocaust but this one really moved me the most. Victor is still alive as we chat but is in a very frail state, however his story was very powerful, moving and courageous and extremely well written by Joseph Krygier.
The movements are based on the story as it unfolded and I try to use some unusual techniques. In the opening Goodbye Lódz I chose to tune the 6th string down to A, an octave below the 5th string and tried to give the effect of the drone sound old world war aeroplane engines used to make. This was achieved by plucking the 5th and 6th string together while slightly detuning the 6th string machine-head down and up. Following that, I tried to create an air-raid siren effect by playing a slightly dampened ascending treble string pattern. This movement all culminated in a set of repeated arpeggiated A's emphasizing the arrival at Auschwitz. The descending and ascending scale patterns denoted the separation of the women and the men as they left the train carriages completely unaware of what was lying ahead.
Other techniques included throughout the suite are the use of the back of my right-hand index finger nail, almost like a violin bow effect. It creates a very eerie feeling, blowing on the strings, rubbing the guitar body with my right-hand fingers while slurring notes with the left. Singing, crossing strings over each other, scraping the stings with nails to give the impression of train doors being opened and placing a pencil under the 12th fret and playing notes on the fret-board side.
In The Journey Window (Movement II) I tried to create the illusion of the small rectangular windows that the victims would have seen in the train carriages used to transport them to the concentration camps. Strumming all the strings ascending in the V position, then a 4 note ascending chromatic scale on the first string followed by all the strings being strummed at the VII fret but this time descending, finishing with a four note descending chromatic scale on the 6th string. After that the rest of this movement is just imaginative - trying to conjure up the image of what people must have wondered, thought or felt if they could only see out the high-up small window of those carriages. This is just a small example of many ideas and themes I used throughout the entire work.
To some extent there are atonal qualities in this work, which does make it atmospheric and somewhat dark. However I did want it to be a celebration of Victor's life too and that is why the movement Victor at the end is completely tonal. The second-last movement The Return to Lódz uses themes from the first movement Goodbye Lódz this time in reverse, highlighting the return journey and is fast and furious, portraying a city that although had seen so much suffering in its past, was now a busy city, bustling with life.
I guess there is a need to actually see it performed to appreciate all these symbolic techniques and luckily I do have this on YouTube.
Do you have any words of encouragement or advice for guitarists new to composing?
I'm not sure how qualified I'd be to answer that however if you feel passionate about what inspires you and you want to make music, then just do it. It's all too easy to be intimidated by great works but there is a saying: you're more likely to regret the things you don't do, rather than the things you do! I've never seen myself as a composer. I have received a huge amount of positive feedback for my works and am very grateful I have taken the opportunity to embrace composing despite not setting out to become one.
Live in the moment and be totally present in absolutely everything you create in your day. Creativity will more likely flow with complete presence rather than letting your mind live in a future or a past that in reality, doesn't actually exist.
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