Richard Betts talks to composer-guitarist Bruce Paine about Gallipoli, technique versus musicianship and why he no longer plays the lute.
Bruce Paine is a gifted classical guitarist. He used to be a gifted lutenist, too, until his sister told him he looked daft.
"I'm six foot four, long arms, always looked ridiculous playing lute," he says, a little ruefully. "She said I looked like a frog."
For the record, Bruce Paine does not look like a frog. He doesn't sound like one, either. Evidence will be supplied on Sunday when Paine gives an all-too-rare concert at Alberton with fellow guitarist Barkin Sertkaya.
Sertkaya, who is head of guitar at the University of Auckland, is from Anatolia in Turkey, hence the concert's title, Anatolia-Aotearoa. Sertkaya will play music by Carlo Domeniconi, an Italian, but one with close emotional and artistic links to Turkey.
Paine has his own connections to that part of the world. One great-uncle was killed on the first day of the Gallipoli campaign; another survived, only to die at the Somme. Paine wrote a song cycle to commemorate the first of those, one of the so-called "Roto boys", five young farming lads from Roto-o-Rangi, near Cambridge, who signed up for their big European adventure. Only one of them survived the war.
Paine gave the premiere of his songs on the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing, and says he never expected to be performing with someone from Turkey.
"I know the ANZACs have great respect for the Turks, and to meet somebody in this peaceful activity [making music] seems somehow significant and special."
Gallipoli Songs won't be part of Anatolia-Aotearoa's programme but Paine's half of the concert will solely feature his own compositions. In recent years, writing music has become a significant part of Paine's career. Is he a guitarist who writes music or a composer who plays guitar?
"I feel a struggle between the two," he says. "I think I'm leaning more towards being a composer who's also a guitarist. I'm not passionately trying to learn or maintain the standard guitar repertoire; I reached a stage where I wondered what the point was. I was playing all this music from other cultures and I love hearing it, but what can I communicate that's different?"
The answer to that lies in Paine's writing. His music is impressionistic and a little melancholy, with strong connections to place and titles like Aotearoa Suite and Rotoiti Twilight.
One of the pieces Paine plays on Sunday is Waitematā Reverie, which is also the title of a forthcoming CD of his music, performed by Wellington guitarist Gunter Herbig. Herbig was Paine's teacher at Auckland university in the 1990s.
"Bruce was the perfect student in the sense that he was open to exploring musical ideas, with a wonderful and fluid technique," Herbig recalls. "He came up with some incredibly impressive performances, really world class."
Herbig was notable for dragging New Zealand classical guitar into the present, introducing modernist, atonal music to a scene still in thrall to the work of guitarists from 50 years earlier. Ironically, Herbig likes Paine's tunefulness.
"I appreciate that because he's stepped outside the need to be shocking and challenge listeners with abstruse musical ideas," Herbig says. "I respect that, and I think it's partly the strength of his music that he expresses his personal narrative, rather than fitting a bandwagon or a perception that contemporary music has to be a specific thing."
Paine is delighted to have Herbig record his music.
"I have to pinch myself, really. Gunter's a unique guitarist, and a musical, beautiful player. I used to follow him around to hear him because he was always entertaining and took risks."
Paine is similarly effusive about Sertkaya's playing.
"I heard him perform Bach's Chaconne and I don't think I've ever heard it played as accurately and beautifully."
Because it's rarely played live, it's quarter of an hour long and really, really difficult?
"It is, but he nailed it. He's not just a technician, he's musical."
Paine returns several times to the subject of technique versus musicality. Despite being an excellent guitarist, he doesn't consider himself technically perfect, and says his compositions reflect that.
"You tend to write to your own limitations, and to incorporate something like fast scales in a meaningful way is a challenge. You can put fast runs in that have no meaning, they're just filler."
That doesn't mean his music is for beginner guitarists; even Paine's mentor struggles on occasion.
"Some of the bits Bruce does effortlessly, I find quite difficult," Gunter Herbig admits. "Bruce's left hand is incredible; he's got the wingspan of an albatross." Hey, it's better than being a frog.
What: Barkin Sertkaya and Bruce Paine present Anatolia-Aotearoa
Where and When: Alberton, 100 Mt Albert Rd, Mt Albert, 4pm, Sunday, September 15
Gunter Herbig's album Waitematā Reverie is released October 11 on Naxos