An Interview with Chris Acquavella

An Interview with Chris Acquavella

Chris Acquavella is a classical mandolinist & educator from San Diego, California, who currently lives in Mainz, Germany.
I am really impressed by Chris’s passion for the classical mandolin and when we first communicated I spent days listening to and enjoying his performances and his compositions. Chris is dedicated to music and the mandolin and this is admirable.
As I am very interested to learn more about what other mandolinists around the world are doing and their story, I sent a few questions to Chris hoping to learn more about him and if possible post his answers here as a mini-interview with the tMt Mandolin Adventures section.
Enjoy his answers below!
Christos Rizos

Could you tell us a little about your background, and how you got started playing music and the mandolin?

Sure, I started to play guitar when I was 10 years old. At that time I learned that my father, who passed away before I was born, played guitar professionally. I decided at that moment that I, too, wanted to be a musician. I haven’t looked back since. From ten years old I studied guitar with various teachers. After I graduated High School, I played in a hardcore punk band called Born Blind around 1997. Shortly thereafter we signed two record deals and toured all over North America. Born Blind played together for five years and after the group split, we took off in different musical directions. Before Born Blind, I had also played in Rockabilly, Funk, Metal and Celtic bands in my younger years. It was a great outlet for writing music and making true friends. My rock and roll background still plays a big role in my life as a classical musician.

I came to the mandolin, like most Americans, through bluegrass and Irish music. One of my neighbors played a Kentucky Colonels LP for me. I loved the drive of Roland White on the mandolin, which piqued my interest in the instrument.  However, when I heard the David Grisman “Quintet” album — that was the end of the story, I was hooked! I knew I wanted to learn the mandolin seriously. I played mandolin in a Celtic/Newgrass band called “Clarsah” and little by little the instrument completely took over my life. However, as much fun as it was playing traditional music, I really wanted to pursue the mandolin classically. The depth of classical structure really appeals to my desire to tell a complete story of each piece. Around 2001 I decided to go back to music college and get a degree in performance. I typed into Google “Classical + Mandolin + England” — and Alison Stephens’ website appeared. I read in her biography that she was a professor at Trinity College of Music, London. I thought to myself ‘why not; I can do that’ and promptly made an audition video. The next thing I knew I was off to England to attend Trinity College of Music, London, now called Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.  It’s one of the top ranked conservatories in Europe; an amazingly inspirational place to study. I graduated in 2006 and have been working as a professional mandolinist since.

You were already a seasoned guitarist and rock musician touring around North America when you picked up classical music (and mandolin). How do you compare these seemingly very different genres and your experiences with them, what do they have in common and what do you think about rhythm and energy in classical music and mandolin? 

My passion for classical music started at an early age. One of my guitar teachers, Peter Pupping, would make me listen to various recordings and write reviews. Luckily during all my rocker stages of youth I was taking classical guitar lessons which installed a love for classical music and ensured that I concentrated on good technique.

I think that there isn’t as much of a divide between classical music and other styles as the media tends to portray. I find that the music industry, whether it is classical or popular music, tends to be very similar. It’s all about selling units and which artists have the most appeal. Musically speaking, or course there are some clear differences but that line between the various styles is getting more blurred every day. Even in Early Music we can find a new vibe and energy that wasn’t there in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Ensembles like Europa Galante and Il Gardino Amonico have brought a whole new pulse, rhythm and image to Early Music. I think the best classical music is when artists pull from their past and touch the core of all that makes them who they are. It makes performances of traditional repertoire like Beethoven, Hummel, Calace sound more convincing and less like an educated reciting of notes on a page. In general, classical music as an industry is adapting to the constantly changing market. There are quite a few new composers who are writing exciting music that has elements of other music styles. Avner Dorman, Gabriel Prokofiev, Zoe Keating and Max Richter are worth checking out.

There are two directions in classical music that can be followed by mandolinists. The first is presenting historical performance mandolin repertoire; whether it be performing Calace Preludes to 18th Century Repertoire. The other direction is to think outside the box and try to create a new inspiration for young aspiring mandolinists. As a professional mandolinist I want to be rooted in both avenues. My latest album on Centaur Records is all 18th Century Sonatas and Triosonatas for mandolin. However, as a composer, soloist and in duo with guitarist, Zura Dzagnidze, I focus on writing and performing new, fresh modern mandolin music that has elements of Eastern European folk music, rock, hardcore and jazz mixed with classical structure such as American minimalism.

My rock and roll background plays a big role in my life as a classical musician. I tend to be attracted to repertoire that “rocks out” and is high energy, no matter the musical period. A lot of my personal compositions have some kind of popular music element to them. My solo mandolin compositions, “Imardin,” and “2014” have a very driving aspect, which was completely inspired by my past music life. It’s nice having the ability to bring various styles into classical structure and a way of personalizing new music for my instrument.

You have experienced the mandolin music scene in Greece back in 2003. Could you describe your experience and how was this important for you?

Ah man, Greece was awesome! I had a great time. It was such an eye opening experience. I was in my first year at Trinity College of Music when I was chosen to represent Great Britain in EGMYO. My views of the classical mandolin at that time were very young, American and uninformed. Being there and meeting all these fantastic players from all over Europe exposed me to a much larger and serious classical mandolin world than I was previously aware of. It was so great to work on professional and challenging original repertoire for mandolin orchestra. Our Greek hosts really took care of us and showed us a fantastic time. We performed in Patras, Kefelonia and Athens. Because of the 2003 EGMYO, I returned to England with a strong drive and clear vision of how I needed to dedicate myself to the art of the classical mandolin. That experience helped me shape the remaining 4 years of my studies.

Greece is seeing a lot of mandolin-related activity lately, perhaps marking a shift of the music audience interest towards more authentic and acoustic music sounds. Mandolin orchestras in Greece are also working to promote the mandolin as a classical, orchestral and soloist instrument but perhaps with limited success so far. What is the situation in Germany, how popular is the mandolin and especially the classical mandolin, and what do you think are the advantages for a classical mandolinist to live and perform in Germany, compared to other countries you have lived and performed?

The classical mandolin is very popular on an amateur level here in Germany. Germany is a unique country in the sense that there are many amateur orchestras and a federation that oversees (unites) them. However, I can count on one hand the amount of professional mandolinists who are making a living as a performer. So, I am not sure of how much of an advantage it is living in Germany. The grass just might look greener on the other side of the fence. From what I’ve seen, most mandolinists graduate college and then get a job teaching at a local music school. The classical music scene in Germany is incredible. Audiences are very knowledgeable and don’t run for the doors when you start performing avant garde music. In fact they seem to appreciate the music, the more intellectual it is. However, unfortunately the mandolin doesn’t play much of a role outside the amateur orchestra world. So, as a professional musician, I feel the need to constantly go on tour. I’m still new to the German classical music scene, so I am learning more every day.

At the moment, I feel America is a better place for a mandolinist to make a professional living. The country creates a drive in a musician that helps focus his/her desire to make a living at this. There are organizations like Mandolin Café, Mandozine and the Classical Mandolin Society of America that market and support professional mandolinist’s hard work. There are a lot of festivals, workshops and concert venues booking mandolinists. In the USA there is a real desire to see concerts and take part in workshops in order to learn from professional mandolinists. All of this comes together to create a supportive and positive environment for professional mandolinists to blossom as artists.

Every country has its strengths and weaknesses. For the mandolin to be taken seriously, no matter what genre, we need more top quality professional musicians and a system that supports them.

You graduated from Trinity College of Music in 2006. How important do you think is for a mandolinist to attend formal music studies and how have your studies helped you in your musical career?

It is super important for someone who wants to make a living as a classical mandolinist to get a degree from a conservatory. Studying at Trinity College of Music in London with Alison Stephens was the best thing that has ever happened to me. Trinity College of Music is absolutely wonderful and such an inspirational place to study. It was one of a handful of conservatories in Europe that had a fully accredited Bachelors, Masters and post-graduate mandolin program. Unfortunately the program was cancelled after Alison Stephens passed away in 2010. But there are some other great degree programs out there. Having a music degree doesn’t always mean that someone is a great musician but it does help make potential employers’ first impressions easier and taken more seriously.

A mandolinist needs to learn more than just playing the instrument in order to make a living at this. A formal music college education will not only teach you how to play the mandolin but also give you all the other tools needed as a working musician. While at Trinity I had to not only study the mandolin, but also Early Music Historical Performance, Alexander Technique, Kodaly, website design, music (financial) management, recording arts, and a slew of contextual study and musicianship courses. A musician also learns how to network while at college. You meet fellow musicians who you will work with during their career. You learn how to create and market projects. These are all vital skills. The staff at TCM created a wonderful program, providing me with all the tools needed for this profession. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today without my degree from Trinity College of Music and guidance from Alison Stephens.

You are a performer but also a composer and a teacher. How do you balance your time between teaching and performing, and what do you see on the horizon for the future repertoire of the mandolin, beyond folk/bluegrass and classical?

I try to balance my time by assigning days to certain tasks. Currently I choose to teach 12 hour days on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. This leaves Monday, Tuesday and Friday available for composing, rehearsing and organizing things for concerts/workshops. Sometimes my concert schedule will change that plan slightly but for the most part I find this system works for me. I am super proud of all my students. They work incredibly hard for me and are dedicated to learning good technique; no matter what style they are interested in. When I go on tour the only teaching I do is at workshops or summer camps. I have to do it this way because it is important to only focus on performing while touring. It is hard to balance all the aspects of being a musician but it is necessary to keep me from finding a “real” job.

I can’t really speak for the future of mandolin repertoire. In regards to my own compositions, I am constantly trying to blend all of my passions into one identifiable sound. So when people hear my music on the radio or online somewhere, they immediately recognize it as my voice. I would like to bring something new to the classical mandolin world.

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I’m Chris, a mandolin lover from Greece, trained in Music, Mathematics and IT who makes a living on technology but enjoys life through music and arts. Welcome to my adventures!

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