6 mar 2013

Andrew Forrest Interview

The encyclopedia of guitar ensembles
By Fernando Bartolomé for MGE

The internet is a real treasure for all people who want to find things, to learn, to communicate or to have a good time. The next person being interviewed is here only by the result of a google search.

Looking for guitar ensembles resources for students and MGE readers I find a true gem in this sense: AndrewForrest website. A site full of music scores for guitar in all type of combinations and levels. Immediately I contacted him and I asked him to do an interview.

So here we have Andrew Forrest talking about his long career as performer, teacher, composer and arranger.  

I think your passion for the guitar started late. Can you tell us about your beginnings?
It wasn’t that late! I had had an attempt at the piano and clarinet at the ages of 6 – 10 but never felt they were for me. Then my father started on classical guitar and the sound attracted me straight away. I found I couldn’t stop playing though my technique was atrocious until I had a term of lessons at school with Robert Spencer, the English lutenist/musicologist, which gave me a secure foundation. From then on I was committed to playing and continued through university (sciences not guitar) until I was giving local concerts on a fairly regular basis.

When at the age of 30 the job as a peripatetic teacher of guitar came up in North Yorkshire, I went for it straight away since I thought this would encourage me to become more involved and become a better player. Unfortunately I became a worse player but greatly enjoyed the teaching!

You have arranged  over 100 works for all combinations of guitars: duets, trios, quartets, orchestra ... Why did you focus your interest on guitar ensembles?
When I first started teaching to groups in schools, there was very little guitar ensemble music available, especially at the easier levels, so I had little choice but to start arranging and composing. I had done some arrangements for 2 and 3 guitars before but not at beginner standard. The teaching was principally in groups of about 4 though I also ran two guitar ensembles on Saturdays with up to 20 in each and I had to produce ensemble music for these too. I soon found that even very simple pieces in 3 or 4 parts could sound beautiful, even with a beginner ensemble.

In your orchestral arrangements you include two requintos, four guitars, a bass guitar and a bass. Can you talk us about this combination and about requintos, bass guitar and bass?
I wanted to extend the range of the guitar ensemble, especially with larger groups, so that parts remained clear. A bass guitar was an obvious choice and I started with one electric bass, suitable amplified and with the tone controls adjusted so as to fit in as well as possible with the classical guitars. Eventually we could afford 2 classical basses which sound great with the ensemble.

At the top end, I chose requintos to extend the range up a fourth. I also found that not many were needed since their tone cuts through the ensemble easily. I hadn’t heard of the Niibori instrument range at this stage but I feel that requintos, standard tenors and classical basses cover the range well.

In your arrangements or your CDs, instruments like electric guitar or electric bass don’t appear. Could requintos be replaced by electric guitars and bass by electric bass or do you think the music may become unbalanced?
I have heard guitar ensembles playing my arrangements entirely on electric guitars and electric bass. Though it wasn’t how I originally conceived the sound, I have heard some enjoyable performances.

Where the ensemble has been mixed, then the electric guitars have to be reined in so as not to drown out the acoustic ones since balance becomes a problem.

I have also arranged several pieces for unusual combinations of instruments e.g banjos, mandolins, classical guitars and rhythm guitar. These have been fun to do.

Did you work with a group like a Niibori Orchestra? Do you know anything of his music and education philosophy?
No, I had never heard of them till I chanced upon the Niibori website at

I realized immediately that this was someone who was aware of the problems of clarity and range in larger guitar ensembles and so started to rearrange most of my guitar orchestra pieces for these ensembles too.

How did you develop your ability to arrange music? How do you organize the process?
Initially, I started with no formal musical training, using just my guitar and attempting to play all the parts at once! I’m still somewhat untrained though I have studied basic musical theory since I started arranging.

When I began to use computer software to aid in producing scores and parts, I soon found out that I had to rely completely on my inner ear and imagination. Pieces that I knew worked with ensembles often sounded thin on computer and also what sounded great on a computer often failed to satisfy with a real ensemble. I think that was the most important lesson I had.

Firstly, I keep an ear out for suitable material: much of the music out there is not suitable for guitar. I feel that it’s not worth doing unless a guitar ensemble can produce something (in theory at least!) which is worth listening to and not just a weak copy of the original instrumentation.

Secondly, I work on the parts trying at all times to make all the parts make musical sense and be interesting to play - perhaps I don’t always manage this but it seems important to keep all members of the ensemble happy.

I play through as much as possible on one guitar; sometimes I may record some parts to see how they sound. Then it’s time for a print-out which I think it important to make very clear; I’ve found that sight reading is much improved if the player can see the material easily. Then it’s off to a local ensemble to try it out for real.

In the Niibori method I saw the tremolo technique was used in a very unusual way. You ask for tremolo to be played in some of your melodies.  How do you want it to be played?
For my arrangements, unless otherwise specified, I assume the use of ‘pami‘  for the tremolo and leave it up to the interpreter to control the amount of stress the thumb gives to the beat.

Do you manage a group? How do you work?
At the moment, the York Guitar Quartet and also York Guitar Society are my areas for group activity. The Quartet can cope anything I give them but for the society I try to make sure there is a good range of difficulties in the parts.

Do you teach ensembles? How do you organize the work? What are your goals with these groups?
I’m no longer teaching though I do run occasional workshops in North Yorkshire.

These are full day events but I normally send on scores and parts a month or so before so that the players are reasonably familiar with what is involved.

I feel an ensemble usually benefits from having a different director/conductor for a day since new ideas and concepts bring an extra dimension to their performance.

You have arranged numerous works from all periods of history but with your quartet, York Guitar Quartet, you have focused more on contemporary works. Do you think is essential to introduce contemporary music to ensembles in teaching from the very beginning?
The Quartet started out playing mainly classical and baroque works since this was what was available. We also have done quite a few Spanish and Latin American pieces. We then went through our ‘Eastern European‘ phase enjoying Bartok, Stravinsky and Janacek among others. Now we have been spending more time writing our own material and also commissioning new work from local composers.

With respect to teaching contemporary material from the beginning, yes, I certainly include it. As long as the music is good, a young player will appreciate it without knowing where nor when it is from!

Regardless of the value of an ensemble as a source of pleasure in itself I think it has tremendous pedagogical power as the basis of a good musical education. What do you think? What pedagogical value does playing in ensembles have in the learning process from the beginning?
For guitarists (and I definitely include myself here), keeping in time and playing with others is often a problem since the guitar works so well as a solo instrument. For the first 10 years of my musical life I never really had an opportunity to play with others (apart from a brief adventure with a rock band that never quite got off the ground). It was difficult to appreciate how important it is to play with others; as a soloist I had been a bad listener - in fact I listened more to what I thought I was playing than the sound I actually produced. Now I would say it’s the most important style of playing there is since it’s all about communication.

There are three cds released by York Guitar Quartet in which there is great originality in the choice of repertoire ranging from arrangements of your works to Janacek, Bartok and Stravinsky. What would you highlight above all and why?
We were aware that there were many trios and quartets out there playing baroque, classical, Spanish and ‘modern’ styles of music but had not come across anyone delving into the wealth of material from Eastern Europe. Each member of the quartet had a different musical background and with separate interests (rock, blues, flamenco, classical etc) I’m sure we all have different favourites. I still like some of the Bartok we do best.

On your website we can find a collection of the best ensembles of guitars worldwide. Who do you think stands out from them all?
Many of the ensembles I have never heard since they have only sent me information. However, I have followed links to their sites sometimes and recently I have enjoyed listening to…

- Guitarstrophe - from Australia

- Glendale Community College Guitar Ensemble (USA)

and this quartet I think are lovely but I can’t figure out who they are (South Korean I think)….

What must an ensemble have to stand out? What criteria do you think a quality ensemble should have?
Apart from the obvious requirements of technical skill and general musicianship, the members must listen to each other, keep a tight ensemble and have a good agreement over interpretation. With larger ensembles (say over five or six) a conductor is needed since only someone outside the ensemble can clearly hear the balance of the parts and control changes in tempo and dynamics.

For people who don’t know your website, can you tell them what can they find there?
As it says on the front page …

It offers a range of music composed or transcribed for guitars and other instruments. It encompasses a range of styles and levels including guitar ensembles for schools, amateur groups and for more advanced performers.

The pieces (and parts) are graded in difficulty using the general levels used by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, London and of Trinity Guildhall, London. I am (slowly) adding sound files of many of the pieces - either that people send to me or as links to performances or slightly amateurish versions produced by myself.

There is also a survey site where I add information about guitar ensembles worldwide with URLs and an indication of instruments used. This I hope is a useful resource for people arranging guitar ensembles so they can see what types of guitar ensemble exist.

Besides your superb website, what resources can you recommend for guitar ensembles?
Well, I’ve put links to a lot of interesting sites on my links webpage, but there are ever more sites appearing with guitar resources. For source material (that is out of copyright) I frequently use the IMSLP Petrucci Music Library.


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