In Conversation: Duo Amythis

In Conversation: Duo Amythis

Playing as one and learning not to over-book with the award-winning guitar duo, Duo Amythis.

In Conversation: Duo Amythis

Playing as one and learning not to over-book with the award-winning guitar duo, Duo Amythis.

You have been performing together since 2009, while pursuing solo careers at the same time. How do you balance your solo and duo careers?

We tend to have periods when we play more solo, and periods when we play more duo. Lately we've been performing almost only duo concerts, because the program we recorded has been met with a lot of success. Previously it varied. In 2013 we both played almost only solos, then in 2014 it was more or less balanced, as we repeated our old solo programs and learnt a new duo program. Since mid-to-late 2014 we've been playing almost exclusively duo concerts. Perhaps next year we'll play more individually, perhaps not. It depends mainly on what professional demands we receive: if we get requests for duo concerts then that's what we'll play. We both maintain a solo program though, so any demand for solo recitals can be met. Of course, other chamber music is always present, such as the concert Harold performed in Melbourne with flautist Lina Andonovska in 2014.

What have you learnt about working together as a duo that you wish you’d known when you started?

Just how much work it is! During tertiary studies, chamber music is considered a sort of support subject to the more important business of being a great musician. The result is that rehearsals are often kept to a minimum, and the standard is accepted as long as it is good enough. Everyone learns their parts, they play a few times together, make sure any cues have been decided upon, and head out onto the concert stage.

We've learnt that in order to meet professional standards as a duo, you have to rehearse just as much as a soloist practices...and it's exhausting work, far more so than normal practice, because there's a whole other person there, a whole complex mess of variables over which you have no direct control!

Communication becomes absolutely central. You have to understand each other's aesthetic goals perfectly, otherwise the result will be two soloists playing together, rather than a duo expressing the music as one. Having said that, contrast and dialogue are also important. Contradictory attitudes have to be nurtured. A duo that is too homogeneous doesn't necessarily stay interesting for the length of an evening recital (all depending on their choice of repertoire and program order of course). It's a nightmare! ... But very rewarding!

Together you have performed around the world. It can be tricky getting off a plane and jumping straight into performance mode - how do you manage this?

To be honest, if as a musician you can't jump into performance mode for a concert, then you've got to work on your planning. We used to over-book our travels; I remember once recording with a septet all day in Sydney before travelling to Canberra for an evening recital. Last year we drove all day one day for a concert the following morning. Of course the concerts tended to be fine, but was it worth the risk? What if the guitar was damaged in the flight? Air travel always involves heavy lifting, which really should be avoided the day of a concert.

We always allow time to get over jet lag on long flights, we avoid travelling any great distances the day of a concert, we don't teach or sit in juries on concert days. We see this as part-and-parcel of being professional. Of course you could over-book yourself and probably be all right, but it's not worth the risk of a concert with which you are not happy, or worse yet, with which the audience is not satisfied.

When did you each first hear the repertoire for guitar duo, and what continues to draw you to the genre?

Harold's first duo experience was Tim Kain and John Williams live on stage in Canberra. Véronique's was the Caputo-Pompillo duo in St-Truiden (Belgium). For us, a guitar duo has all of the colours and beauty of a solo guitar, but with far more possibilities. Some repertoire is practically unplayable on one guitar, and works brilliantly split across two. Great compositions for guitar duo always make the best of both instruments at once, and could not possibly be adapted to solo guitar. Other non-guitar repertoire that sounds wonderful on one guitar can be even more beautiful, or at least different, on two. More notes can be included to create fuller resonance, melodies can be sung in different positions, for different colours, unshackled by accompaniments that can only be played with a barré in a single position, for example. The extended possibilities are the real draw-card of a guitar duo, and the wider range of colours.

When preparing new duo repertoire, do you initially work on your parts alone, or do you start that process by playing together?

We tend to play mainly together, even at the beginning when things have to go slowly. This is an advantage when changes need to be made, as creative decisions like this should be made together.

For our readers interested in pursuing chamber music, how do you recommend they get started?

Find people you like, because you'll be spending a lot of time together! Don't compromise on your own artistic vision, but remain open to that of others. Communicate! And when someone else is trying to express their ideas, listen, try it, be open, try to express their vision in your way, learn from each other and create an interpretation together. And then play a lot, book as many concerts as you can. Just like as a soloist, you'll learn more from one performance than from a whole month of practice. Just play! If there are competitions, do them, because whether or not you win, the preparation will improve you. Get lessons, from guitarists as well as non-guitarists. Outside input is vital to questions of balance and colour in particular. Aim for perfection. If a cue isn't perfectly together, repeat it 20 times until it is, and then another 40 until you're sure it will be every time.

Who inspires you, as a duo?

Other duos we like are the Duo Melis, the Assads, and of course the Williams duos with Kain and Bream. The Bream album is fascinating, because the personalities of the two players are so different and so audible, yet the duo works. The Melis duo are the pinnacle of togetherness, a phenomenal example of what can be achieved. The Williams-Kain duo and the Assads are both inspiring not-only for their playing, but the way they build the repertoire. We'd love to build up a repertoire of new pieces like that. Some of the earlier performances of the Katona Twins have inspired us as well, just so, fun, exciting and exuberant!

How do you go about choosing repertoire, and is the commissioning and performance of new compositions (as you did on your debut album The Journey) part of your general practice as a duo?

Strangely, the harder we look for new repertoire, the less we find, but not looking we often stumble across great music. We've done countless arrangements that we've never played, and own huge quantities of scores that we'll probably never perform. And then after a concert by Möller, we spontaneously bought one of his pieces and were performing it four months later to great acclaim. We are no more interested in playing only new pieces than we are in repeating old ones, we believe in balance. We want both, and always include both in our programs. The program as a whole is the important thing: an unbalanced program of great music reduces that music's quality. It's a slow, continuous process that can't be forced.

What can your audience expect at your concert for the Melbourne Guitar Foundation on December 17?

A mix of music, some of which some audience members have heard at our last show, and some of which is new. One piece is brand new, the world première of a piece Harold wrote last year! The other pieces that are new to Melbourne are not new to music, with masterpieces by Vivaldi and Bach, that just never get old. We decided to include the Möller, as it's a feature of the album and still only rarely performed. And of course some Spanish classics, because what's a guitar recital without a little stop-off in Iberia!?