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Amanda Cook
Amanda Cook.
The world of classical music is to me a complete mystery. I enjoy orchestrated film scores and the occasional Prom, but the signpost pointing down that particular dark alley, does not beckon. For me it's the bombast of rock or the wild banshee improvisations of jazz that ring my bell. So why was I enticed by this particular aberration. Amanda Cook first came to my attention whilst casually browsing the guitar community on the w.w.w. I was impressed by her well turned out site, which invited me to click on a few "listen to me!" clips. They were sufficient to encourage me so send off for her appropriately titled album "Debut". This, needless to say, her first album, to my ears, presents a very serious piece of work, and in places, positively rocks! I was further encouraged by this to go and see her perform solo at London's prestigious Wigmore Hall. A 99% capacity crowd enjoyed a riveting performance and accordingly responded with almost wild, rapturous applause. A further appearance on Radio 4's Woman's Hour and I was a fan.
Amanda has an awesome talent. She can play (Click here now! e!). She is young (I didn't want to ask but I guess around 26ish). To get where she is now, make no mistake, has taken years of study, graft, and dedication. She is not looking for the quick road, the short cut to fame and riches. She is an artist. Though to me, she comes from a distant and alien musical culture far, far away, the joy and enthusiasm she has for her art is extraordinary and infectious.

So when did you start playing?

When I was seven.

Were you taught from the very beginning?

Yes. My dad played professionally in a blues band for a while. So I got the itch from him. We had these classical guitar albums at home which I used to listen to my teacher was classical so right from the start I was very classically orientated. I went the Royal College of Music in the junior department when I was fourteen and went on to do a full time degree after that. That was great, it is an institution, it has all this tradition and these wonderful guitar teachers. But there was nothing there that helped you further your own career but that in a way, encouraged me to go to other guitar events outside the college and meet other people and make my own way. I went to auditions and did chamber work. With solo work, your not going to get that much work but you've got to get out there and try, and try to meet more people.

How much did you used to practice?

About four to five hours a day, but not every day.

So, how did the album come about?

It was something that I have always wanted to do. I decided that the best way ahead, was to do it myself. My first step was finding John Taylor, a producer/engineer who has worked with lots of the top classical guitarists. I knew I would be in safe hands, as he had recorded in this situation hundreds of times before and had great results. He had heard of me so that worked out fine. The church in Hertfordshire that he uses to record was closed for restoration. So instead I looked around for a church down in West Sussex where my parents live, which helped reduce the costs with accommodation and such like. I happened across this Church with a beautiful acoustic (St Thomas A. Becket, Pagham, West Sussex), and we recorded over a period of about two days.

Do you ever listen to it?

No (laughter). I hate listening to myself. I remember when we editing the tracks from the master tape. We had to listen to it over & over, it was horrible. John said you must not be too critical. You have to lets things go, which is true. It is nice to have done it. Now I want to do another one.

For a concert like the Wigmore Hall, how do remember all the music? It seems very complex and there are hours of it!

It's quite scary; it's probably the only thing I ever worry about. Whenever I have had the odd memory lapse, you always seem to find your way if you have learnt it well enough. Basically you have three kinds of memory. You have your normal memory for how the piece goes and your singing the piece in your head, anticipating the music before it happens. You have your physical memory of your hands doing it, playing the music, like chord shapes or patterns, things like that. Then you have your memory of the score, the actual written down score.

You can remember that?

Yes, what it actually looks like. So you basically have three backup plans, so one of them should work.

Do you have any problems with your hands?

Not really. There was one time a couple of summers ago when I had some problem with the nerve tissue in my forearm. I did a concert where I was doing a concerto in the second half and also some solo pieces in the first. There were quite intensive last minute rehearsals with the orchestra. The next day I couldn't close my fist, it was really painful. I went to a physio, she did my back and opened every thing out and it really worked. Now I've got loads of exercises, warm ups and stretching. Before I play and after I come off and also before and after practicing. I really haven't had any problems since.

You've won loads of things haven't you?

(Laughs). Down in Bath they have this competition called the Admira Young Guitarist of the Year and I won that when I was eighteen. My first year in college. (Ed: Amanda has also won the 1997 Ivor Mairants Guitar Award and the 1998 Carol Evershed Martin Award, along with 3rd Prize in Krynica International Guitar Competition, Poland 2000)

What did you have to do to win?

Well, you had a set piece, which was about five minutes, and then a time limit where you had a free choice. So another couple of pieces.

You have played all over the world, how did that come about?

I get a lot of invitations from my website. I was e-mailed by this amateur guitarist from Brazil who organizes a lot of events and promotes people. He organized a big guitar festival over there and invited me, so I went to play there and teach. I met a lot of other teachers and performers who were there who ran their own events. As a result I got invited to New York, Long Island, Spain and other places. It's a really nice way of doing it, of meeting people.

Tell me about your guitar?

It's a Bert Kwackkel. He's Dutch. I got mine in 96. I was really worried when I placed the order because if it didn't come out how you liked it, it would be awkward because each one is individual, I would hate to have to say that it didn't really suit me. You can make your own specifications but at the end of the day, you don't know what it's going to sound like. He didn't know me but he has a friend over here called John Mills who plays them and I had played his and really liked it. As it turned out, when it came over, he gave me first refusal so if I didn't like it he could pass it on. But when it arrived I immediately loved it.

So have you studied with John Mills?

Only master classes. He is a big inspiration though in my teenage years. I met him at West Dean (guitar festival) when I was fourteen, the first year it started .With a couple of other students there we used to do concerts with John and his wife. So we spent some time with him, we played in some ensembles together. It was wonderful.

So, what's happening for you in the future?

Well, I've got this new all girl guitar trio. It's called "Appassionata". One of the girls was asked to put together a guitar trio. Both the other girls I used to play with, with John Mills. (The other girls include Hayley Savage and Rebecca Baulch)

Is there a lot of material about for a trio.

Yes there is. Also one of the other girls, Hayley, is a composer, so she is going to write some things for us. Our first concert is next week in Bath. We already have quite a few bookings. It's early days but it looks like we might be signing a record deal. It's nice to share the experience with other people. I love doing solo work, I never want to stop doing that but it's great to be able to use the guitar in different ways.
The next thing for me though is my next album. For my first album I wanted to a recital type program, all different styles, periods of music, show people what I could do, what I love to play. Play some new music that people hadn't heard like the "Omagh" piece and then Verdery, the American pieces that don't get played much. For my next one, I want more of a theme. So I decided on suites. I've got the album cover all sorted out, me and loads of sweets! (laughs). I want to record the Bach Cello Suite that I played at the Wigmore. That's about twenty-five minutes, which is a fair whack of the album. So I need to find two more, maybe from different periods. But I don't want pieces that have been played hundreds of times before. I want to explore possibilities, do something fresh, a little bit different. I really want to get on with it.

Are there many female classical guitarists out there? Do you feel like a pioneer?

No, it's definitely been done before. There are a few women out there. It can be an advantage; because you stand out, if there are a couple of woman, and twenty men. At the same time you feel you have to prove yourself. These days there's a lot talked about speed, and power, I should say volume. What metronome markings you practice at. I don't really think that's what it should be about. We all have to do our technical work. It should be about breaking down the barrier between the performer and the audience. I find this selling thing quite hard, having to be this product. To try and get work and a record deal. In as much as I am ambitious, I do want to do as many concerts as possible but it's much better to have an agent.

OK, I asked a friend who is a fine classical guitarist to give me some sensible questions to ask Amanda regarding classical guitar technique. I dropped them into the conversation at this point! So, here's the science.

Right, here we go, "When you play a piece in three voices do you prefer to bring out the higher note melody voice using apoyando or tirando strokes? Does this depend on the historical context? And does that actually mean something?

(Laughs) Yes it does. Can you say it once more though?

(I repeat)

Apoyando means rest stroke so you pluck and rest your finger on the next string down. Tirando means you just pluck the string and your finger stays in the air. Tirando has a lighter sound. I use quite a lot of tirando. To a certain extent it depends on the historical context. For example for renaissance I wouldn't use a lot of rest stroke because it has a weightier feel. For a lot of fast scale work I use tirando, which gives you more fluidity in the line. For the really juicy melodies like the romantic stuff I use apoyando.

When performing early or baroque music do you rely upon certain transcriptions or do you prefer to refer to the original sources?

What I have done in the past is to ask around and look at different transcriptions and find one I like. For example the Bach Cello Suite, that I though was pretty faithful to the original, a lot of them had lots of extra bass notes and weight from the linear sounding cello. But then I would always get the original and change things. That's the usual way I do it. I would listen to different instruments for different ornamentation, trills and things like that.

Do you have any plans to commission any more works by contemporary composers?

Yes, I love getting new pieces. William Lovelady, he wrote the Omagh piece on my album. He's definitely going to write some more stuff for me. That's really exciting. I have spoken to some other people about the possibility, so definitely yes.

What football team do you support?

I don't really watch football. I watch the England games.

The program for the Wigmore Hall asked the audience to persist from breathing while the concert was in progress?

Yes, a lot of concerts are very formal. They would say the same if it was an orchestra. I did this gig in a little club in Brooklyn and everyone was just sitting round tables with beer with candles, they were really listening. It was a lot more relaxed. I would love to do more of that. I've just been up to Kirkmichael in Scotland. Martin Taylor runs a guitar festival up there. He's amazing. There are all different styles of music. At my lunchtime gig that I did in a church, it was full of rock guitarists; I thought how is this going to go down? It was brilliant, they loved it, there was a guy with a cowboy hat who swaggered in right in front of me, it was a great atmosphere. At the end everyone was cheering. It was like a rock concert. I thought, "This is fantastic". It is the best way to be. So different from normal concerts.

What music do you listen to?

There are some bands I like. I have just bought the Damien Rice album, which is really nice. I like singer songwriter stuff like David Gray. I like Norah Jones, Tracey Chapman, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simmone, a bit of Coldplay. I like a huge range of stuff.

Do you play electric guitar?

I love the sound it makes. I had to play it in this Boulez piece. A French composer, a really modern piece. Because the notes were all over the place I used my fingers instead of a plectrum. It's a bit weird because I couldn't change the sound in the same way. But I did love it. I'd love to get up and play in a band!

As an individual carving out career as a guitarist in the modern world, Amanda Cook is an inspiration. She is self-contained, articulate, dedicated and ambitious and to my uncultured ears she is a very fine player. However, you should be your own judge. At the very least, check out her album or go see her at a recital or concert coming to your town very soon!


Amanda Cook : Amandas web site.

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