August 2006 www.guitarsessions.com by Stephen Rekas
Acclaimed for his musical lyricism and rich compositional approach, Australian fingerstyle guitarist and composer Lucas Michailidis was the winner of the International Open Strings guitar competition in Germany in 2001. The win landed him a recording contract with Acoustic Music Records and a solo spot at the 2002 festival.CD releases The Offering and Freshwater Road have garnered attention worldwide along with glowing reviews throughout his native Australia. In these recordings Michailidis performs solo acoustic guitar compositions that demonstrate a broad palette of musical expression. His extensive and unconventional use of alternate guitar tunings leads to a fresh melodically driven approach that is free of cliché.Michailidis' music has been published by American fingerstyle author/transcriber, player and publisher John Stropes as part of his 'Great Compositions by Emerging Artists' series. Stropes is perhaps best known for helping to further the careers of Leo Kotke, Michael Hedges and Alex Degrassi. Michailidis has performed extensively throughout Australia and abroad and is also regular member of The Children of the Underground, an ensemble led by acclaimed Tartarstan singer Zulya. Together they have toured Europe on several occasions, performed at all major Australian festivals and released the highly successful CD Waltz of Emptiness - winner of the 2005 National Archive Award which enjoyed a top-ten ranking in the European World Music charts. His 1997 release of Journey highlights his work as a skilled and accomplished jazz musician/composer and features original jazz-inspired material for larger ensemble.Michailidis was brought up on a healthy dose of Carlos Santana and George Benson and later acquired a taste for Pat Metheny, Pat Martino, Ed Bickert, Ed Gerhard, Michael Hedges, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Steve Reich, Jimi Hendrix, Rickie Lee Jones, and James Taylor. With so many diverse influences, it's difficult to categorize Michailidis' own music or foretell what the future may bring for this gifted musician.
Was music a part of your household when you were growing up? How old were you when you began to play?
I was quite fortunate to be brought up in a musical household. My sister played the piano for years and I also happened to have an uncle and several cousins who were all talented, passionate musicians. From about the age of six, I acquired within the family an enviable reputation as The One - String Wonder. As I couldn't conceptualise the mechanics of the guitar at that stage, I developed the habit of pecking out melodies- as one would on a piano - all on the one string of an old beaten-up guitar! In hindsight this appears to me as a logical and useful method for understanding the instrument.
You are right on the money. That is one of the approaches recommended by jazz guitarists Gene Bertoncini and his protégé, Frank Vignola!
That's reassuring to know. As it turns out, I dabbled on the instrument for several years before an earnest undertaking began in my mid-teens. While my technical facility was limited, I had received prior to this an excellent aural education - through exposure to lots of music that enabled me to move forward quickly and naturally.
Do you feel that your starting age is a critical factor in playing your style?
It's difficult to say. I recall my uncle starting me out on conducting and solfege in those very early years. This proved much to my dislike (I wished to play guitar- not sing do, re, mi) and lasted for only a brief period. I reflect on this occasionally and believe that had lessons continued, either one of two outcomes would have occurred: firstly, I may have ended up with UNBELIEVABLE ears (!!), or alternatively, I could have had a gut-full of the guitar by the age of twelve. My feeling is that children who are reveal a love of music will generally find a way to become acquainted with this. Playing music was certainly inevitable for me.
What styles interested you when you first began to play? How do those preferences influence your current music?
Early on I was exposed to the likes of Carlos Santana, George Benson and Earl Klugh and recall joyful hours cutting my teeth on their records. I have a leaning towards artists who have created an individual, recognisable sound through the transformation of their own influences. When one's influences are treated in an organic fashion with the utmost respect and reverence for the tradition that inspired them, the resultant music is a style unto itself that can possess great depth, beauty and integrity. I would site Pat Metheny, Astor Piazzolla and Steve Reich as further examples.There are a few artists who have successfully managed to appeal to a large number of people and musicians alike. These early influences were stimulating to me as both a listener and musician, yet remained accessible at all times - a key element I've tried to integrate in my own music.
Please describe your formal music training.
I commenced classical guitar study when I was about 14 and announced a few years later that I wished to abandon it for the pursuit of jazz! The classical training provided obvious benefits for my fingerstyle technique, but I found the prospect of lush harmony and improvisation much too alluring. Fortunately at that time, I changed high schools and fell under the influence of a wonderful teacher who nurtured me in that direction...From there I studied formally at the University of Melbourne completing a Bachelor of Education in Music. This provided a terrific grounding in theory, composition, music styles and of course, the guitar. Further independent study consisted of attending master classes of imminent jazz guitarists: Jim Hall, Pat Martino and John Scofield. In 1998 I spent time in Los Angeles studying privately with pianist/composer Billy Childs and the late Ted Greene.
You were very fortunate! Ted Greene was an exceptional musician...
...and endowed with the greatest humanity and humility. Ted Greene was probably the most inspiring person I have ever met. During my last visit to the States in 2001, I managed to organise a lesson with him and was shown numerous ways in which to approach the guitar in a contrapuntal manner. Of course, the information gleaned during this one-hour session would be ample enough to sustain me for several lifetimes.Regarded as a genius amongst his peers (although he steadfastly rejected such claims), Ted spent much of his time teaching at his modest LA apartment. His living quarters were inundated with thousands of books and pieces of music, which were literally stacked high to the ceiling! Some of the most valuable lessons gained from teachers are the one's that extend way beyond the musical arena. In the case of Ted Greene, it was his unwavering commitment and devotion to the pursuit of knowledge that has influenced me most profoundly. With his death, the guitar community is sadly bereft of genuine master.
How do you build a composition and what are the important elements?
For me, one of the key musical ingredients is the melody. It is this aspect that can make music memorable by providing the listener with something tangible to hold onto. Although I am working in the instrumental genre, I prefer song-like forms and melodies of a singable nature. During the composition process, I often sing the top line in order to satisfy the criteria of it being melodic and simple yet arresting.Another important issue that needs to be addressed is that of balance. There are a host of varying elements that, when balanced well, can assist in producing strong work. Some of these include simplicity/complexity, dissonance/consonance, intellect and emotion. Whether it is the composer's conscious intent or not, a great composition usually possesses this inherent sense of balance.Finally, I feel that in order to get to the essence of a piece, it's imperative that one is prepared to conduct a rigorous inquiry, sifting through much material before signing off. I've heard it said that the mark of a great composition is distinguished by the amount of material discarded.
Is there anyone you would like to collaborate with in a recording or tour?
I'm particularly fond of the Taoist saying: "make the small big and the few many". The musicians that have the most lasting effect upon me are those that have the courage and conviction to bring their entire being into one note - or better still into silence. "Making the small big" is akin to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary and is in general not a practice that our culture advocates. I would feel honoured to collaborate with the people I regard as leading exponents of this practice: Carlos Santana, Ed Gerhard and Rickie Lee Jones.
Have you ever had to weather a creative dry spell in your playing or composition? How did you overcome it?
Oh sure, it's an unpleasant ordeal. My first solo CD The Offering received positive recognition throughout US and European guitar circles. I felt the real or imagined pressure or expectation to follow that CD with the best follow-up possible; this fixed view of how something should be will almost inevitably lead to blockages.Several things were of help. The Offering was generally a quiet and reflective work. Once I decided that there was no need to re-write the same album, I found freedom and enjoyment in pursuing another facet of my musical personality - namely that of a more bluesy, buoyant style.When one is struggling to create new work, it's common to experience feelings of tightness, anxiety and frustration. Rather than wishing to eradicate these, as is our tendency, I would suggest harnessing the emotion and intentionally attempting to compose a tight, angst-ridden piece! Paradoxically, this is an excellent way of freeing us up and potentially injecting a bit of much needed humour into the situation. Another obvious solution is to give it a rest for a while. We underestimate the power of the unconscious mind to solve problems. I found that once I was ready to approach a piece in an open, relaxed fashion the solution presented itself on its own accord. This process can take years though...
What keeps you interested in the music business?
I have become increasingly aware of the body's role in the playing of an instrument. Through my study of Alexander Technique, I have realised that it is essential to identify places of tension and holding, inhibiting and releasing these habits, so as to play in our most natural and easy state. This is an area that I have only recently started to explore and one that excites me immensely. I can see that the ramifications of such learning could resonate profoundly throughout one's life.While I've been playing for over 20 years, I continue to gain much enjoyment from writing music for solo acoustic guitar and I feel that I am still only scratching the surface in regards to the possibilities. Listening to how Bach wrote for cello or violins is quite a humbling experience and I feel I would like to develop further the concepts of independent voices on the guitar - almost like that of self-contained orchestra.
Care to mention a career highlight?
I feel blessed and incredibly thankful that music has been a major part of my life for such a long time, and it's this fact that I'm probably most proud of. Following your bliss can be a perilous road due to the fact that it is intrinsically motivated and likely to encounter opposition from contrary popular opinion. Many people choose to leave their bliss by the wayside.Another more specific highlight entails receiving praise from Ted Greene. Having a genuine master acknowledge one's work provided me with a sense of being understood and known on the deepest, most resonant level. As people what more could we desire? It's a moment I'll treasure for a lifetime.
Would you describe your practice routine?
For many years, I devoted a great deal of time to working on musical fundamentals: scales, chords, arpeggios etc. These days, I tend to focus my energies on writing and thus spend the majority of my time composing as opposed to "practicing" as such. Depending on my commitments at the time, this may vary from between 2 to 10 hours per day. It is safe to say that I will have the guitar in my hands for some part of the day.
Do you teach or act as a musical mentor? If so, what areas do you emphasize with your students?
I've taught regularly for over fifteen years. Teaching has provided me with numerous enriching experiences and has taught me the importance of crystallising and distilling information to its purest form. Since the arrival of the Internet, I have seen significant changes in the way students learn. The overload of information means that students are able to obtain music/tablature readily and this often equates to not having to rely on their own resources to work things out. Consequently, a vital and fundamental step of learning music is avoided, that of internalising. I am a great advocate of students developing their ear and firmly believe there is no better way than through the process of transcription.Whilst there are undoubted benefits, this present bombardment of information can also result in distracted students that find difficulty in focussing on the mastery of one thing. I try to encourage people to dig in as deeply as possible, getting the most out of their study before moving on.
Making the small big and the few many...
What do you do to keep your repertoire sounding fresh?
I guess the repertoire sounds fresh if I am feeling fresh. It's that simple. I make sure I'm writing new material regularly, or at the least arranging material; For example, I've just finished arranging a Bach invention for solo guitar. Attending concerts and being exposed to live music is also important.As a soloist, I've also realised the need to continue to make music with other musicians. I am a regular member of a wonderful group The Children of the Underground which is led by the acclaimed Russia/Tartar singer Zulya. Together we have recorded, toured (twice to Russia) and shared a wealth of experiences. Playing music regularly with musicians I admire results in deep and personal relationships that can't help but enrich and inspire.
Do you use alternate tunings in your arrangements or original compositions?
Virtually all of my compositions are in alternate tunings. I tend to favour tunings that are ambiguous, for example: C G D G C D. The fact that this tuning is neither major nor minor in quality provides it with numerous tonal/harmonic possibilities. It's important to realize that you can play in more than one key in an open-tuned system.Unusual tunings can provide us with a wealth of colors that are otherwise unavailable in standard tuning. To my ears, they also provide a refreshing change from the keys of E and A. There is a great deal of unexplored terrain awaiting discovery; all that is required is some curiosity and a willingness to let go of what's known...
Do you have any suggestions on assembling a concert repertoire or preparing for a concert?
As a soloist it's imperative to pay special attention to the repertoire that is presented as I find that listening to the sound of one instrument for an extended period can become tedious. The key is to keep the audience guessing by mixing up of various elements like:Style - At times, my original repertoire can sound classical, bluesy or calypso.
Tempo - It's important to keep the pace varied.
Key- I try to avoid spending too much time in one key; capos are useful in this regard. Consider varying the tonality of each song so that there is contrast between major and minor.
Having banter that's well considered and relevant is also of much value. Besides facilitating tuning between songs, banter provides an excellent opportunity to engage with the audience. From my experience, people appreciate gaining insight into the performer's personality and respond favourable to anecdotes behind the music. Banter can also offer a short respite for listener's ears.
What's special about the instrument you play?
My main instrument is a 000 series acoustic made by Australia's premier luthier Christopher Melville www.melvilleguitars.com. It features a Sitka spruce soundboard, Australian blackwood back/sides, and dark olive green New Guinea Ebony bridge, headstock and binding.This instrument is outstanding on several counts including tone, playability and aesthetics. Melville guitars are constructed with an obsessive consideration regarding the choice of woods and the fact that Chris is highly critical of the quality of both the top and brace wood ensures that each instrument possesses a phenomenal dynamic range, responsiveness and exquisite, perfectly balanced tone.Chris is a master craftsman, whose care and attention to detail result in impeccably crafted instruments that are a joy to play. He has built custom instruments for such acclaimed fingerstylists as Tommy Emmanuel and Tony McManus and his guitar is featured on my albums, The Offering and Freshwater Road.
When arranging or composing for the guitar, do you actually write out the music or tab or do you prefer exploring with guitar in hand until you come up with something memorable and then record it?
If an idea is difficult to execute, I'll occasionally notate it by hand so as to see what it looks like on paper. This is generally not the norm though. Most of my compositions are played hundreds of times before they approach completion and it's inevitable that they will be committed to memory. This approach is in line with the idea of internalizing the music.Having said this, I have recently completed a book of transcriptions called Twelve Compositions for Fingerstyle Guitar that features a selection of music from The Offering andFreshwater Road. I was heavily involved in the transcription process and what I thought would be an arduous process actually ended up being extremely rewarding. To invest further energy in the notation of one's music is a way of affirming and consolidating its worth. It also provides the opportunity to share it with a wider audience.
What are your technical strengths and weaknesses?
I think that my right hand finger dexterity is reasonably good. In terms of weakness, I'd say that my strumming ability has always been average, as this has never come naturally to me. Certainly there's also plenty of room to improve my rhythm playing in general.
What are the key elements of your style?
Alternate tunings, colorful harmonies, use of open strings and hopefully, strong memorable melodies.
What are your sources of inspiration? Do you also write lyrics?
Apart from the influences mentioned earlier, I have a broad taste in music and find inspiration in many styles. Artists that continue to inspire me include: Pat Metheny, Michael Hedges, Ed Bickert, Steve Reich, J.S Bach, Martin Hayes, Bill Evans, James Taylor and Jimmy Hendrix. Writers such as Rainer Marie Rilke, Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, and friends and loved ones all have had a significant effect on my thoughts and musical conception.As my instrumental compositions have song-like forms, I find that they lend themselves to lyric writing. Funnily enough, I've started writing lyrics in the last year or so and have managed to get quite a kick out of it. Decent lyrics should sing well, be conversational in tone and are often required to convey complex thoughts or emotion in a most economical form. Whilst it's not my greatest strength, I enjoy the challenge and am finding the process quite appealing.
Do you ever use a thumbpick or a flatpick? Do you play with fingertips, nails, or acrylic nails?
No, the sound of a thumbpick is a little too abrasive for my ears. I'm lucky in that I have reasonably strong nails and as I don't usually play that hard, they tend to last okay. In order to avoid breakages, I keep them well shaped and not overly long. I've occasionally considered acrylic nails but believe that they mustn't be all that healthy for the nail - particularly when I hear of nasty fungal stories developing. Occasionally I have been known to glue the plastic variety when the situation is dire. These don't feel so great, but do the job if need be.
Inquiring minds will want to know your preferred guitars, strings, and recording mic? Is there anything on your wish list as far as equipment or instruments?
On my custom Melville guitar I use medium-gauge Phosphor/Bronze Martin Strings, gauges 13-56 although I'll usually place a 14 on top for some added tone. My stage setup is pretty basic and consists of running the guitar's transducer and onboard mic through a Fishman Pocket Blender. I sometimes use a BBE- Sonic Maximizer that helps tighten up the sound on stage. Recording mics consist of a Neumann U87 and a couple of Sennheiser K6 condensers.As far as a wish list... perhaps a beautiful valve preamp like the Summit. We used one on my first recording with excellent results.
What projects do you currently have on the front burner?
As I mentioned earlier, a bit of variety helps in keeping things fresh. I'm keen on writing a new body of work for solo acoustic guitar and also contributing Russian-sounding material (dramatic pieces in minor keys will usually do the trick) to the next Zulya and The Children of the Underground release. I'd like to publish several of my songs (those with lyrics) and am even considering including some singing in the repertoire. As of July I will be commencing my own column Fingerstyle Guitar in a national publication which will provide me with an excellent opportunity to rant and rave, as I will. The prospect of a concept book that draws on my playing and teaching experience may also be on the horizon...
Do you recommend professional management or self-management?
That's difficult to answer; I haven't been affiliated with management so I can only speak from one perspective. Being independently run has many advantages - one can learn about the inner workings of the industry, retain complete control and reap the bulk of profits from sales whereas a signed artist will have to sell a bucketload of CDs before they recoup any sizeable income. I like that being small makes one flexible, maneuverable and personable. The downside lies in the fact that one has to work extra hard to gain exposure, and this effort eats into time that could be spent on the instrument.
Apart from music, what are your interests?
I love to read anything from biographies, mythology, art and the classics. I enjoy swimming regularly and find that apart from keeping my body fit, it does wonders for my brain. I'm fond of cooking and relish a great game of chess.
Thanks for a very informative interview, Lucas.
It was a pleasure and thanks for the opportunity!